It was a few years ago when my brother first introduced me to Alex Honnold. “You have to see this,” he said, sitting me down to watch a twenty minute documentary about Alex free soloing Half Dome. At the time, I knew pretty much nothing about climbing, but I didn’t need to — the astounding nature of the feat was self-evident, and I remember feeling speechless . . . flabbergasted . . . amazed.
Not just at the physical prowess demonstrated in such a climb, but at the mental fortitude of the climber. Hesitate, second-guess, doubt — let one’s mind wander for the merest sliver of an instant — and all is lost. As with Neo in The Matrix, success relies on a single-minded faith few of us seem capable of possessing.
In other words, Alex Honnold has a mind of steel.
It was with that documentary in mind that I accompanied my brother to Alex’s newest movie — this one a feature-length documentary on his ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan — this past Saturday. I had the audacity to wonder, is this mostly going to be what I’ve already seen?
The answer is a resounding no.
Whatever it was I was expecting upon entering the theater, Free Solo was more.
It wasn’t just the impact of watching Alex’s climb on the big screen (though that was certainly not to be missed). Or the raised stakes of an even more impossible, awe-inducing summit — an athletic feat to rival anything we’ve seen at the Olympics (even if one doesn’t factor in the repercussions of the smallest mistake).
We are watching a human being accomplish what no human being has ever done before, and there is something monumental in that awareness. So, yes, Free Solo is well worth watching for the cinematography and the sheer wonder of Alex’s achievement. I would argue, however, that it is as a memento mori that the film is most successful, and most powerful.
This is a movie made in the awareness of death. Of mortality. A fact powerfully driven home by the transparency of the filmmakers. Climbers all, they wrestle on-screen with the ethics of their documentary — the reality that a mistake on their part could cost Alex his life. The awareness that — at any moment — they may watch him die. May capture it on film. Alex is not a myth to these men — he is their friend, and he is human.
The relevance here is not Alex’s mortality, but our own. Driving away the night before Alex’s climb, his girlfriend states that she shouldn’t have to wonder if that was the last hug. The last time she’ll get to see him, hold him, say goodbye. But isn’t the reality, truly, the same for all of us, though we often refuse to face it? How are we to know when a hug, a smile, a goodbye, might be our last? We are all mortal — fragile and perishable — in a hard, sometimes violent, world. Can any of us, truly, avoid the hour of our deaths? Or do we simply live with the veneer of control because we can’t stand the sterner reality: that death comes for us all (and all those we love) and none of us knows the minute or the hour.
All of us have only one life. And all of us live under the perilous sacrament of choice: how will we choose to live it? Some would argue that Alex is being reckless with that gift — and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Am not sure, for instance, that I’d personally want the honor of being his girlfriend. Of loving him, and letting him climb. On the other hand, are any of us less likely to take our loves for granted than she is? Or any so alive as Alex, living in death’s shadow, fully present to his moments?
Being mortal means to die . . . but being human seems to mean that unless we taste that death, we can’t appreciate the life. We value the gift to the degree we submit to the knowledge it won’t last forever. That it is gift. We all exist on a precipice — it’s just that, for most of us, it’s far less visible than Alex’s.
Am I trying to advocate we all take up free soloing tomorrow? Of course not. (No more than I’d advocate us staying in bed because there might be lions in the street.) But Alex can remind us to live our lives with courage — to engage in the holy act of choosing, and to accept the consequences of those choices.
It seems impossible to watch Alex climb — to listen to Alex talk about climbing — and not believe he was, in some sacred way, created to climb. And I am reminded of the words of Annie Dillard, in her iconic “Living Like Weasels”:
I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.
Alex has grasped his “one necessity” but our choice remains: how will we live and how will we love, mortals that we be? Have we courage enough — steel enough — to take the leap?